Before straining his hip flexor during a win over the Indiana Pacers Sunday night, evidence was mounting to suggest Johnson’s production and consistency have improved measurably over this still-young season.
Exhibit A is the month of December, in which the 27-year-old small forward not only averaged 11 points per game, but scored in double figures 11 times in 15 appearances.
That compares favorably to the previous month, in which his Jekyll and Hyde act was punctuated by an infuriating series of dips and spikes that resulted in only five instances of double-digit aggregation in 14 games.
Johnson’s shooting from beyond the arc also increased sharply in efficiency in December, with his points increase coming with fewer minutes.
|Wes Johnson's improvement month to month|
Has Johnson done enough to erase his reputation as a draft lottery bust? That’s highly doubtful. Can he be the type of elite swingman that a team can build around? Probably not.
But he can still progress past his current status as a minimum-salary reclamation project and earn a future role with more permanence than his two recent one-year test auditions.
Johnson shares the same agent with Bryant and was introduced to the superstar during a predraft workout for the Lakers. The two worked out together that summer, and the student/mentor relationship has lasted ever since.
It’s a somewhat unlikely pairing—a hardened veteran with a reputation for being relentless and demanding, and a chameleon who has alternated between freakish athleticism and lackadaisical uncertainty during his time in the league.
Yet, Johnson is beginning to respond to a more consistent role and the faith placed in him—he has started at the small forward position for all 34 games that he has appeared in this season.
After two uneven years as both a shooting guard and small forward in Minnesota, the lottery selection out of Syracuse and Iowa State was shipped off to the Phoenix Suns in 2012, where he was used inconsistently off the bench. Last season, he signed a one-year deal with the Lakers and was primarily used by Mike D’Antoni as a 6’ 7”, 215-pound power forward.
The out-of-position experiment had its promising moments, but it didn’t exactly result in the Shawn Marion-like transformation D’Antoni had hoped for.
But when the summer rolled along and the Lakers were less than successful in attracting elite free agents, they turned back to Johnson with another one-year deal, worth $981,084.
They’d like him to become more than a placeholder though, with general manager Mitch Kupchak accentuating the positive through the team’s press release: “Wesley possesses elite athleticism, and has the potential to develop into an excellent defender.”
The phrase “potential to develop” has been Johnson’s constant companion for years now.
As Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale wrote in October, the hope is that Johnson can finally carve out a niche that is more than wishful thinking under his sixth head coach in five seasons, Byron Scott:
Heightened discipline is more Johnson's speed. He's played for the unimpressive Kurt Rambis and impatient Rick Adelman in Minnesota, been buried by Alvin Gentry and Lindsey Hunter in Phoenix and been tasked with integrating his unpolished skill set into D'Antoni's free-flowing system.
Five coaches in four years doesn't portend success. Not when none of them caters or plays to the strengths of young, developing prospects like Johnson. Scott, admittedly, isn't revered for his work with unfinished projects, but his defensive ideals intersect with Johnson's skill set.
Last season, Johnson’s defensive strengths were compromised by being asked to man up against larger frontcourt players. Now he’s being put into matchups where he can use his length and athleticism to harass some of the quicker guards and wings in the league.
And while his ability as a perimeter defender is key for a team that has struggled on that end, Johnson’s improved three-point shooting is also helping to fill a void—he closed out 2014 by converting 13-of-28 long-distance attempts over five games.
Ultimately, the former 2009-10 Big East Player of the Year is at his best when he’s not overthinking things and when he takes what’s given to him in the moment. Creating for himself has never been a strength—he scores most efficiently when catching in rhythm as a spot-up shooter. In fact, 69 percent of his two-point makes are assisted, while a whopping 96 percent of his three-pointers come via a helping hand, per Basketball-Reference.com.
Lately, a player who has too often pulled a disappearing act is starting to come into view, playing with passion and intensity on both ends of the floor.
Whether Johnson can continue showing why he should be part of the future in Los Angeles remains to be seen. But his improved effort is a welcome start.